Feature Article

The Music of Transistor: In The Key of Red


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A good composer knows how to meet your musical expectations; a great composer knows how to subvert them.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was one of the greats. His music is known even outside the concertgoing public; there's a good chance, for instance, that you have heard his music written for the ballets The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, and his 1812 Overture remains among the most popular works ever composed. My favorite Tchaikovsky work, however, is his sixth symphony, known as the Pathétique, and it was this symphony I thought of when I recently listened to Darren Korb's Transistor soundtrack.

Korb's work and Tchaikovsky's are miles apart in terms of harmonic and melodic content, but they have some commonalities that struck me, and one commonality in particular stood out: the use of 5/4 meter. Tchaikovsky's sixth uses this time signature in its second movement, which sounds like an off-kilter waltz in which the dancers keep forgetting a step. In the Transistor track called "In Circles," Korb also uses the same meter to evoke tension, albeit a different flavor of it. Both works play with your expectations. Most music we listen to is organized into twos, threes, and fours; 5/4 meter has a different kind of lilt, and can be vaguely unsettling to listen to. Korb, however, eases the tension by moving from five beats per measure to three during the track's refrain.

With this track in mind, I got in contact with Korb to probe his musical mind, and asked him about this choice. "I knew I wanted to play with some non-standard time signatures early on," he says. "I thought a hint of 'math' would be in keeping with the computer-ey terminology of the game. It also tends to add extra tension!" That's not Korb's only tool for instilling anxiety, however. "One thing I like to do for building tension is to have rhythmic elements that fight a bit. In 'Gateless,' for example, the piece is in five but the bass line for the B section is in three, so it ends up feeling really tense. I also tend to use a lot of chords with close intervals for tension building as well."

Ah yes--another musical idea I associate with Tchaikovksy. Now I think of the sixth symphony's final movement, which features low cello and contrabass chords. In my early composition classes, I was taught that close chords in those deep ranges sound muddled and should be used with caution. If you own a piano, play a minor triad using extremely low notes; then, do the same in a higher register. The lower rumbling notes, rich as they are in overtones, sound goopy and indistinct, whereas the upper registers ring out more clearly. Used properly, however, close chords like this weigh heavy on the heart, and both composers deftly utilize that musical heft. Korb also uses dissonant chords in the upper range to create unease, such as in the opening of Transistor's first musical track, 'Old Friends.'

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'In Circles' still stands out to me above the other tracks, however, not just for its use of 5/4 meter, but also for its vocals, which are provided by singer Ashley Barrett, so I asked Korb about this collaboration. "After working with Ashley on a couple projects now," he says, "I feel like I've gotten a better sense of how to write for her voice. For me, that's the main consideration that affects my writing process. Our sessions are pretty laid back. If a melody line doesn't feel quite right in her voice we will change it on the fly."

It isn't just Barrett's voice that Korb must be conscious of, however. Compared to most soundtracks, Transistor's musical score doesn't feature a great diversity of instrumentations. Instead, Korb uses a lot of plucked string instruments like guitars, along with accompanying drums and other synthesized instruments. The result is consistent, but also surprisingly varied given the narrow tonal range, thanks to Korb's imaginative melodies and rhythms. "I tried to focus on a handful of instruments to help define the musical palate for Transistor," says Korb. "There is a lot of heavily delayed electric guitar and sampled drums, but I also tried to include a number of 'old-world' instruments: accordion, harp, mandolin, etc. In each piece I tried to include some of these elements to help create some continuity for the score, even though the individual pieces could be quite different from one another."

Regarding Transistor's vocal tracks, Korb adds, "I tried to write all of the vocal pieces from Red's point of view. Greg Kasavin, our creative director, had a massive world document with a lot of backstory for her character, and I tried to use that to guide the writing process." This kind of close partnership isn't standard in the games industry; music is often one of the last things to be added, and is often not a consideration in a game's early planning. Korb composes for Supergiant on a full-time basis, however, and is part of the process from the very beginning. "On Transistor, we spent months prototyping our various disciplines. I ended up writing six or seven pieces before I felt I had gotten the tone right. During prototyping, the team put together a 'tone piece,' which was a video that combined concept art, music, and narration, with the purpose of trying to express the feel of the game. This definitely helped us to align the art, music, and writing."

Given the artistic cohesion of Supergiant's previous game, Bastion, it's no wonder that Transistor's aesthetic is just as cohesive. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is one of the best soundtracks of 2014 thus far, and is likely to remain near the top come year's end. Red is a troubled character in a troubled world, and Darren Korb's musical contributions play a vital role in how Transistor communicates her apprehension.

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Kevin VanOrd

Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.


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